Friday, 19 July 2019

[MODULE] The Nocturnal Table (NOW AVAILABLE!)

The Nocturnal Table

I am happy to announce the publication of The Nocturnal Table, a 60-page game aid dedicated to city-based adventures, lavishly illustrated by Matthew Ray (cover), Peter Mullen, Stefan Poag and Denis McCarthy. Originally conceived in 2010 as an article for Knockspell Magazine (but only published in the Hungarian), the supplement has since gone through a lot of active play over multiple campaigns, and been expanded with additional material to offer a handy guide to design and run adventure scenarios in a large, sinful city filled with action and intrigue. This is a game aid designed for regular table use, and formatted to be comfortable and accessible. Whether your pick is Lankhmar, the City State, the City of Vultures or Imperial Rome, this supplement will help generate much of the texture of the streets – from illicit warehouses to the monsters and madmen who prowl the night! Citing the back cover…

“The City is a maze. A labyrinth of alleyways, plazas, shortcuts and hidden thoroughfares, it isn’t any less treacherous to navigate than a dungeon. At least during the day, the worst one can expect is a greedy patrol of guards eager for a shakedown, or a thief in the crowd, ready to make a grab and run for it. At night, the sensible and the timid hurry home and bolt their doors. Ecstatic revellers, madmen, assassins, religious fanatics, thrill-seekers, enigmatic apparitions and tiger-headed opium nightmares prowl the streets. And the guards are still not helping. 

The Nocturnal Table is a supplement intended to bring you this city by way of an encounter system, random inspiration tables, NPC and monster statistics, as well as a giant nighttime random encounter table, whose three hundred entries can serve as interludes as well as springboards for complicated investigative scenarios and fantastic conspiracies.”

At the core of The Nocturnal Table is a 300-entry table of random encounters and odd events you can run into at night in a busy fantasy metropolis. From a patrol of guards carrying a slain comrade, to a sinister beggar-catcher soliciting the aid of dishonest adventurers, or a skeleton covered in grey ooze, its eyes glittering gemstones shambling towards the party, all the wonder and menace of a city-crawl are at hand. But that is not all. With The Nocturnal Table, you can…
  • …create general encounters with the aid of a comprehensive encounter system. A caravan in Hightown threatening the party? Six jackalweres offering secret information near the port at night? Or a magic-user accusing a PC in the bazaars? That could be the beginning of a story (or the end of one).
  • …generate merchants selling strange and fantastic goods (as seen in Echoes From Fomalhaut #01 – that table would have been a crime not to reprint here). Is that jovial guard selling weapons as a form of bait? Are that credible horseman’s sugared fruits really from a foreign dimension?
  • …find out what’s in their pockets. The guard came up with a pouch of 12 gold and a folded hood, but that horseman? His 50 silver, 5 electrum and 10 gp was also accompanied by a weird diagram.
  • …generate local colour on the fly. Ominous, gurgling pipes overhead? A drunk who insists he has just seen a party member go the same way “just a while ago”?
  • stock warehouses with exotic goods to plunder! Leave those odd, primitive swords and the rustic carpets collecting dust in the corner, and find out how much those ceremonial globes may be worth.
  • …and set up secret meetings and investigation sites. The meeting will place behind the old, crumbling mosaic – but don’t touch the drink. And the trail leads on, by the sign near the mortuary… just take care: the children are spies!
Guidelines are also offered to re-use the encounters and chart contents for the construction of bizarre plotlines and sinister conspiracies which rule from the shadows… while the City sleeps (these guidelines have been previewed on this blog). All that, and more are at your disposal in… The Nocturnal Table!

The print version of the supplement is available from my Bigcartel store; the PDF edition will be published through DriveThruRPG with a few months’ delay. As always, customers who buy the print edition will receive the PDF version free of charge.

Do note that a flat shipping fee is in effect: you will pay the same whether you order one, two, or more items (larger orders may be split into multiple packages and shipped individually – this does not affect the shipping fee).

Tuesday, 16 July 2019

[BLOG] Noise or Signal? Further Thoughts on Creativity and Randomness

Art by Virginia Frances Sterrett

Creativity aid, not creativity replacement? We have been there before, and it is a slogan uniquely suited to describe a family of products designed to help GMs develop their own adventures. Random generators have been used to jog our imagination and come up with interesting new combinations ever since Ready Ref Sheets and the Dungeon Master’s Guide appendices; while random tables fell out of fashion between the mid-80s and the early 2000s, they have experienced a revival and they are going as strong as ever. Procedural generation is heavily featured outside tabletop RPGs, permeating the worlds of computer games from Elite to Minecraft (not to mention the deep, dark well of roguelikes).

Randomness, of course, produces no innate meaning, and leaves us to project our own onto it. A dungeon room with a “fire throne”, an “ogre taskmaster” and a “magic warhammer” is a hodgepodge of disparate elements; it takes human imagination to connect the dots and turn the random gibberish into something meaningful. (Perhaps the fire throne is a torture implement, the ogre is a jailer, and he has stolen an imprisoned dwarf’s weapon? Or we are in the hall of the fire giant king, the ogre is his underling, and he is guarding the king’s symbol of power?) Just like modules are a framework to run an actual adventure, random tables serve as the framework for the GM’s imagination. And just like modules, the eventual results should bear the personal mark of the GM, and, ultimately, the whole game group. This is how we co-create, and this is how the whole can be more than the sum of disparate parts.

If it is all so subjective and variable, can you actually review a collection of random tables? Can you actually tell a good table from a bad one? I have used a lot of random tables over the years, and have found that some have proven consistently useful, while others are barely ever touched. There are qualities which make certain tables more suitable to provoke the imagination. It has to do with the entries’ imaginative power – their capability to evoke images which can be spun into fantasy adventures.

To work their magic, we have to trust the tables enough to follow them somewhere. But they must take us someplace special – imaginary places of wonder and menace. A table that does not push us out of our current frame of mind is not a good creativity aid, because we are already there. D&D has a common language – of oak doors, dark corridors, pit traps, wizards and goblins and maybe beholders – which is intimately familiar even to people who do not play D&D. They are “tropes” (a horrid word embodied in that most horrid product of internerd autism, TVTropes). Good tables take us beyond the basics – it is still the same language, but a richer, deeper, more varied layer of it.

Art by Edward Coley Burne-Jones
Some of the imaginative power of random tables lies in the strength of individual idea kernels, but just as much hinges on the combination and juxtaposition of elements which fit together in ways which are not altogether comfortable. Creative tension – the shock of unexpected combinations and the images they create – is what takes the mind beyond the limits of routine thought patterns. Yet there is a limit to oddity, where it ceases to be meaningful. Square birds in purple sauce? These elements don’t fit into a coherent hole. There has to be a “bridging” moment where the pieces shift together, and create something new. “Serpents” and “gates” are both powerful images in their own right, laden with symbolic significance – but a serpent-gate? That is surely something more. A “serpent gate mirror”? Now we are getting there. However, we are also getting more specific, which may limit our options, and reduce us to obvious paths where potent images are diluted back to cliché.
  
Results open to interpretation are better than static and immutable ones. This lies at the heart of the “oracular” power of tables – they tell the truth, but the truth they tell is different from perspective to perspective. This is a tricky balance to achieve – specific enough to be powerful, general enough to fit many different situations – and just vague enough. Dreams are the classic go-to example (and indeed, the Surrealists had already discovered this, including the use of random generation to combine dream-images). The best tables can be reused again and again, because their results have a universal character. This does not mean generic. The “Ruins & Relics” table from Ready Ref Sheets, the random wilderness encounter charts in the Dungeon Masters Guide, or the very first “Locations (Overview)” table in the Tome of Adventure Design all have a strong personality them that influences their results. Indeed, “Ruins & Relics” is as core to the identity of the Wilderlands as the DMG charts to “the AD&D campaign”, and the ToAD table to Mythmere’s vision of “weird fantasy” as the key to the rediscovery of old-school gaming. These tables are foundational.

And finally, there is randomness. A totally random generator is just the noise of a thousand monkeys at a thousand typewriters. It may produce something good – but it won’t. A random generator whose results can be predicted, or which does not produce novelty, is superfluous: everyone possesses the ideas it produces by default. And there is a third, subtle distinction: while a kaleidoscope always produces something different, it always produces the same thing – a kaleidoscopic image. It is a powerful tool, but limited.

Saturday, 13 July 2019

[NEWS] The Lost Valley of Kishar and Echoes From Fomalhaut #05 released in PDF

New PDF releases

I am happy to announce the publication of the PDF versions of The Lost Valley of Kishar and Echoes From Fomalhaut #05, now available from DriveThruRPG. The Lost Valley offers a 6th to 8th level wilderness adventure, a journey to a lost world inhabited by prehistoric beasts and other, even stranger beings. This module was written by Gabor Csomos, and won first place at a 2018 adventure design contest. Second place went to The Enchantment of Vashundara, an excellent adventure in its own right. This module, written by Zsolt Varga, is featured in Echoes #05. The zine also introduces two towns: Tirwas is a community once governed by egalitarian customs, and now divided between a group of powerful Landlords, while Sleepy Haven is a seemingly idyllic coastal settlement… or is it? A second adventure, set in a network of abandoned storehouses and caverns beneath Tirwas, is also featured.

Both PDF publications are provided free to those who have ordered them in print – and print copies are still available at emdt.bigcartel.com. However, if you wish to place a print order, it may be a good idea to wait a week for the next EMDT release, which is…

***

Lurking
The Nocturnal Table! (And no, that will not be the final cover on the left – it is being finalised by Matthew Ray.) This supplement is a “city adventure game aid”, originally written in 2010 as an article for Knockspell magazine, and later expanded for standalone publication (which did not happen at that time). A Hungarian edition was released somewhat later, and was used extensively in our city adventures and campaigns. The present English edition, a hefty 60 pages with lavish illustrations by Peter Mullen, Stefan Poag and Denis McCarthy, features further expansions and additions based on those adventures.

At the core of The Nocturnal Table is a 300-entry table of random encounters and odd events you can run into at night in a busy fantasy metropolis. However, this is just one part of the deal – further random charts and guidelines are provided for running city scenarios featuring thievery, fantastic conspiracies, and weird locations. Want to generate a random warehouse’s worth of valuables to plunder? Create a shady locale to meet with a contact? See what was being carried by that patrician you have just pickpocketed? All that, and more are at your disposal in the supplement. This is a supplement designed for regular table use, and formatted to be comfortable and accessible.

Hopefully going on sale next weekend!

***



In other news, what am I working on? My focus as of late has been mainly on Castle Xyntillan, a large funhouse megadungeon for Swords&Wizardry. This work is in the first proofreading stage (and a short appendix or two are still to be finalised), and the first art orders are starting to roll in. I have also received the first versions of the poster maps (note plural) by Rob Conley, and I must say they are beautiful examples of gaming cartography. These will be maps to both use at the table and marvel at! (And I hope you will agree on this point when you see them.) The current plan for Xyntillan is a 112-page full-sized hardcover, roughly the size of the 1st edition Monster Manual, with four separate map sheets on durable paper. I am shooting for Christmas, and we will see if we get there on time. With a project that has been in progress in one form or another since 2006, you start to accept small delays in the hope the end result will make up for it.

And speaking of delays, Echoes #06 is obviously going to be late. It looks like a mid-September release (which is still fairly realistic), and I hope it will be worth the wait, too. Issue #06 will feature some of the materials which have provided the zine’s raison d'être, the stuff I really wanted to see in print. We will be visiting the City of Vultures!



Wednesday, 10 July 2019

[STUFF] Further Adventures in Morthimion – LEVEL 2

Around the corner, you see...

[Players wishing to adventure in Castle Morthimion: STAY AWAY!]

From the beginning, Castle Morthimion has been intended as a “filler” dungeon we could turn to when I was too busy to prepare for our regular games, or when we didn’t have a sufficient player turnout for campaign play. The great thing about OD&D is that you can play it on and off in gaps of time – for example, on a train.

Which reminds me, last weekend I was happy to welcome Santiago Oría (known on various forums as Zulgyan) in Hungary, and in between showing him the sights, and arranging a larger game in the City of Vulture with the gang, we had a three-hour train ride which we spent playing OD&D. You can play a pretty functional pickup game of OD&D in that fixed time period, and there was even time for a second expedition.

Monday, 8 July 2019

[BLOG] The Sinister Secret of THAC0


It is called ADVANCED Dungeons & Dragons, meme lady!
Of all things AD&D, THAC0 may have the most undeserved bad reputation. You will find people going to war for the honour of the weapon vs. AC table, weapon speed factors (I personally like them), level limits (damn right!) and grappling, but THAC0’s treatment is at best apologetic. Neither the TRV old-schoolers nor the new kids like it much, while both sides find it a convenient target to point and laugh at. Convoluted, counter-intuitive, a chore, “high math” – it has all been said before. 

In fact, THAC0 is significantly easier and more elegant than it looks. This post, then, is written in the interest of public information – clearing the record and venturing a guess why THAC0’s status has suffered undeservedly. (Similar points have been made in the past, but sometimes, repeating something can be useful. Surely, people are still stubbornly wrong about THAC0’s merits!)

The simple elegance of the THAC0 mechanic is easy to grasp. Here is how THAC0-based combat works:
  1. Take your THAC0 value.
  2. Roll 1d20 for your attack and subtract it from your THAC0.
  3. The resulting value is the AC you hit.

That’s it. Now you can do THAC0!

For example, your THAC0 is 20. You roll 10. 20-10=10. You hit AC 10.
Or your THAC0 is 14. You roll 17. 14-17=-3. You hit AC -3.
In the most complicated case you may face, your THAC0 is 14 but the GM grants you a 2 to hit bonus for attacking from higher ground. You roll 12 and apply the modifier, making 14. 14-14=0. You hit AC 0.

THAC0 in the Nobody Cares
About Rath Edition
Hardly rocket science. But if it is so simple, what has made THAC0 the red-headed stepchild of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons® mechanics? The answer is depressingly simple: the THAC0 I described is not the THAC0 AD&D has actually tried to sell us. Here is the rule from the 2e Player’s Handbook (full text in image to the right):
  1. Take your THAC0 value.
  2. Subtract the target’s AC value.
  3. Roll 1d20 and beat the resulting value.

To make THAC0 work with this method, you need to know your opponent’s AC – an information which is kept by the GM, and (often rightfully) hidden from the players until combat develops. In comparison, the first method keeps GM information in the GM’s hands, and preserves some of the “fog of war” of the game (of course, the players will eventually figure out how well their opponents are fighting, which is a fine learning process).

The second approach, while it uses the same number, removes both some of the speed and some of the convenience of the mechanic. It does not grant a clear benefit over combat matrices (we will not go into esoterica like “repeating 20s” this time). However, it is clearly inferior to the first take, which is a smooth subtraction-based mechanic, and it is easy to cite 3rd edition’s Base Attack Bonus + 1d20 vs. AC method as an improvement. What makes the case of THAC0 more curious is how many of the explanations start from the second variety, and how few people seem to even know of the first. It is not entirely obscure – you can find it in these posts Mixed Signals and THAC0 Dragon (but then someone with that handle would probably know his THAC0) – but it is not the common knowledge it should be.

Patient Zero
The ultimate reason may be simple inertia. You can learn about THAC0’s history from this post by Jon Peterson (including valuable comments by Lawrence Schick, who had proposed, but failed to get an ascending AC system implemented), and he posts the rule as it had first appeared in a 1978 copy of Alarums & Excursions. The implementation is clearly the same as the 2e version; however, here the GM is supposed to calculate and keep a record of character THAC0s. This makes much more sense by separating player and GM knowledge, but it does offload extra work on the GM. Interestingly, a 2017 post on Hexcellency outlines a card-based method that seems to reinvent this practice! In any case, you can draw a straight line right from the A&E piece to the 2e rulebooks – THAC0 had remained remarkably stable despite the (theoretical) existence of a more efficient algorithm for its use.

Monster cards

So that is the sad tale of THAC0, which had never lived up to its real potential, and has mostly been replaced either by ascending AC systems or a return to combat tables. It is one method of combat among many – just make sure to stick with the first version if you are actually using it.

Now it makes complete sense


Sunday, 30 June 2019

[REVIEW] Bitterroot Briar


Bitterroot Briar (2013)
by Lang Waters
Published by Expeditious Retreat Press
2nd to 4th level

Bitterroot Briar
Enchanted forests may be the number one staple of fantasy literature (probably going back to our caveman ancestors’ fireside tales), yet good forest adventures are hard to come by – which is why I tend to seek them out with particular interest. Bitterroot Briar is one of these modules: it revolves around an elusive enchanted grove surrounded by a ring of impenetrable briars, and hiding a series of lost mysteries.

Unfortunately, this scenario feels bloated at only 10 pages (not counting the cover and the OGL). It spends a paragraph where a good sentence would suffice. An overwrought backstory is followed by the description of an uninteresting village community. There is an area map which has no function whatsoever: the wilderness it depicts is represented by a random encounter chart, while the main adventure location’s position is entirely subjective. No other areas are described, or even located on this map. It is a mystery. Getting to the briar has no rhyme or reason to it. It is not at a specific location, so you can’t look for it; and there is no transparent means of getting there. It is mostly built on a random encounter chart and GM fiat.

Some things probably wouldn’t work so well at the table either. There is a one-column “Lore” section in the appendix with a childrens’s song containing important clues for the inside of the grove, but I know no GM who would break into a song during a game session, and thanks God for that. No, we didn’t sing those Dragonlance love poems either. This is not the best means of giving the characters a hint.

Map to Nowhere
The grove itself is an interesting concept: an anomaly of time and space, where visitors are shrunk to minimal size, and time passes out of synch with the normal world. As a neat touch, some of the grove’s inhabitants are transformed humans who were trapped here a time ago, and are now living as insects and other small animals while still acting according to their original personalities. The former good guys are bees and the former bad guys are ants, while the main antagonist is, of course, a snake. The seeds of an interesting adventure are there. Sadly, the actual location key does not actually do much with this material. Some entries are, again, a complete mystery:
“B. DEAD TREE: This tree has already been looted.”
“5. ORDINARY TREE: There is nothing of interest about this tree.”
“9–11. ORDINARY TREES: These trees have nothing unusual about them.”
Eight of the 26 keyed areas have nothing of interest to them. Eight more are lazily placed treasure drops:
 “F. DEAD TREE: An empty iron flask lies in the tangled roots of this dead tree, about a foot below the surface.” (Note unobtainable treasure.)
“G. DEAD TREE: A sword +1 dangles from some wines in the mid-branchs [sic] of this suicide.” (???)

You get the idea. There is, simply, a lot of padding, and because of the padding, even things which would be otherwise okay feel like more padding. The module has four different random encounter charts (one for the surrounding woodlands, one for the grove, one for the pools and one for a mini-dungeon found in a fallen oak). You would never notice, or even consider it a feature if the module had an abundance of useful content. But this is a module which takes its sweet time on these side issues, and leaves us hanging when it comes to the actual worthwhile content.

There is some potential there: conflict between the miniature denizens of the grove, the return of old history, treachery in the village that is linked to the grove, some interesting faerie animal characters – all of these could be incorporated into a fun, whimsical module, and it wouldn’t have to be longer than the present work. However, it never becomes a cohesive whole. Worse, once you strip out the chaff, not much of a location that could be used on its own. Some encounters are actually rather imaginative or at least moody, but this is a module where the whole is not more than the sum of its parts. Bitterroot Briar is frustrating because you see flashes of unrealised potential, but no easy way to set things right. Unfortunately, something elusive seems to have been lost in the writing here.

No playtesters are credited in this adventure.

Rating: ** / *****

Tuesday, 25 June 2019

[REVIEW] Magical Murder Mansion

Magical Murder Mansion

Magical Murder Mansion (2019)
by Skerples
Self-published
Mid-level

Before you stands a bizarre creation: a funhouse dungeon that tries to make sense. It is a neatly engineered mishmash, an IKEA nightmare that would pass an EU inspection. You see, the killer cucumbers are all according to directive, and the death ray room will kill you in a fair way. Do not run. You will, in fact, have fun. Welcome to Magical Murder Mansion.

In this module, the characters will explore the haunted house of a crazy wizard who has apparently shuffled off this mortal coil, but not before turning his mansion into a funny deathtrap where adventurers will love to die. Indeed, it will be Hubert Nibsley – and the GM – who will have the last laugh! Where early funhouse dungeons were created through a stream-of-consciousness loose association approach (magical herbs optional), this is a studied recreation of this dungeon subgenre. Tegel Manor, White Plume Mountain and The Tomb of Horrors are cited in the introduction, which lays out the design goals of the module in a clear and transparent fashion. It is deadly, it is full of bizarre stuff, and it is somewhat adversarial, but it is not capricious – a real “thinking man’s dungeon” that plays fair and allows for a lot of open-ended problem solving. Of course, it is also a lesson in the ultimate funhouse design – that poking hornets’ nests is a lot of fun.

Magical Murder Mansion is admirably large and complex by modern standards. It describes a multi-level mansion and its 90 keyed areas – and takes only 15 pages to do so with inset maps and a few illustrations, before dedicating the other half of the module to new monsters and other supplementary materials. The entries represent a good compromise between scope and detail. There is establishing flavour (“Tawdry abstract red and orange wall hangings, badly chewed or motheaten”), and GM information presented in a clear, succinct way tailored for table use (“Small water basin full of light pink oil of slipperiness: makes everything it touches frictionless for 10 minutes”).

Most encounters are things to mess with, traps, or puzzles which are reasonably open-ended and typically depend on observation and a little lateral thinking, which usually represents 40-50% of the mythical “player skill”. The author set out to write a module where even failures make sense in hindsight (“Yup, we did walk into this one”), and has stuck to this vision. The action is mostly non-linear (although there is one gated “collect these four objects” puzzle that’s essential), and after the players go through a few encounters, they’ll invariably start to think up crazy schemes to turn the deathtraps and monsters into an asset to combat other deathtraps and monsters. This kind of emergent complexity is nice to see in a published product.

Vegetables Gone Bad

This is not a module for people who like deep immersion, or care for some kind of pseudo-historical veneer over their games. The mansion is completely anachronistic even in D&D’s obviously ahistorical assumed setting (which, ironically, would not have been out of place at a late 1970s game table). It is also filled with gonzo monsters like laser rats, the cool-as-ice wrestling angel, and the veggie-mites, a tribe of animated vegetables. It is all silly, but the monsters are functional, and two (the module’s take on tooth fairies and the mole dragon) are original and quite creepy. It did lack a certain whimsical sense of wonder that’s present in Tegel Manor and White Plume Mountain, which also pitch seriousness out the window, but somehow do better at building an environment that feels magical (the whole "dungeon as mythic underworld" concept). This is, again, a rationalist’s take on these old hallucinatory visions.

It would be unfair to omit the module’s dedication to usability. Dungeon sections are mostly presented on facing pages, one of which displays a partial map of the specific mansion section. The map itself is easy to read, and there is a blank players’ version that could be printed on a larger sheet of paper (something that comes from Tegel). Handy cross-references point to the material you will need. Creature stats are not included in the main module text, but at least they are simple to find in the appendix – along with more useful stuff, like tables for magical accidents and enchanted pools. There is also abundant explanatory text and GM advice about running the module and getting the most out of it.

As mentioned above, Magical Murder Mansion is a sleek, highly polished take on the funhouse dungeon concept. Everything is in its right place, and it is actually quite sensible as some powerful madman’s final prank on the world. Maybe it is just a bit too orderly – it lacks some of the drive and baroque flourishes of the modules it was inspired by, like the Green Devil Face or the Gazebo with a killer vine which has -8 AC and 50 hit points. So what you get is more Scooby Doo than a bizarre Fleischer Brothers cartoon caught on late night TV – which is a criticism only if you were expecting the latter. As a beer-and-pretzels that doesn’t take itself too seriously, it is very well done.

No playtesters are credited in this publication.

Rating: **** / *****

Monday, 17 June 2019

[REVIEW] Into the Jungle


Into the Jungle (2019)
by Christian Plogfors
Self-published

“The Vietcong dug too deep.” This is one of the games whose core idea can be summed up in one brief sentence. It will probably be sufficient to establish your reaction to it – it could sound fascinating, stupid, or absolutely tasteless. It is certainly original, even if it combines two well-known genres in the form of old-school D&D and Vietnam War combat. As the background goes, the Vietcong inadvertently broke an ancient seal while digging tunnels, and “pigmen, skeletons and other fantasy monsters are spreading out into the jungle around the area.” CIA-sponsored patrols have been sent in to disappear without a trace. Whatever the source, both the Americans and the Communists want it gone.

To reiterate, this is NOT primarily a Vietnam War game with fantasy elements; it is a fantasy dungeon crawl set in the Vietnam War, featuring modern combatants in what are presumably fairly D&Dish dungeon crawls and wilderness expeditions. “Dragons and helicopters”, so to speak – a setting which thrives on the juxtaposition of fantasy and recognisable modern technology. Would a squad of Vietnam-era conscripts fare well against gnolls, jungle vampires and dungeon bigfoot? Here is the time to find out.

Operation Manual
It would be a lie not to admit this bonkers concept was sold to me through the game’s presentation. It looks and feels like a half-declassified military file (at least a civilian’s idea thereof), with a typewriter font, “classified” sections where the text can benefit from ambiguity, and stark black-and-white stencil illustrations of mostly guns and helicopters. It is even called an “Operation Manual”. The game comes in the form of several modular, landscape-oriented pages which could be arranged in any order after printing, or laminated and split up during play between the players and the GM (since the precise order does not matter that much). It is compact and logically laid out. For a minimal system, it is very well presented.

The game rules are based on Into the Odd, one of the worthwhile old-school systems which take a step beyond “here be my favourite edition of D&D with some house rules or extra streamlining on the top”. ItO is not a variant, but an in-depth rethinking of the D&D concept, with its own play dynamic, strong implied setting, and support material (which establishes the game more firmly than just a set of mechanics). Like pre-supplement OD&D, ItO is a small, mean, fairly deadly game that has more going on than initially meets the eye. It is far superior to its essentially interchangable rules-ultralight rivals. Consequently, ItO has always seemed to serve as a fertile ground for good spinoffs – like D&D itself, it is a good baseline to build on.

It is all very simple. Your characters are defined by three ability scores (Strength, Dexterity and Wisdom) rolled with 2d6+3, and also the basis of an ability test mechanic used for “saves” and more general actions. Characters get 1d6 Hp per level. Characters are also defined by a random class skill (PCs with low ability scores gain a second one as compensation), 2 weapon skills, a few disposable squad members (these flunkies have 1 Hp and 1 weapon skill each), and gear – some standard, some rolled on extensive random tables. Characters are further rounded out through a series of random background/personality tables.

Your average player character might look something like this:
Doug “Taco” Cavezza, Strength 7, Dexterity 7, Wisdom 2 (he sucks!), Hp 5. He has two class skills due to low stats, First aid and Leadership (he can remove stress points from comrades, a valuable skill). He can handle Submachine guns and Infantry rifles.
Doug has two companions, Dwayne “Doc” Ferguson (1 Hp, pistols), and Howell “BooKoo” Hendrix (1 Hp, pistols).
He gets two combat weapons (M16, Ingram MAC-10), one melee weapon he is not good at (utility/combat knife), misc. gear (jungle fatigues, combat boots, M1 helmet, belts and pouches, a rucksack, and a canteen). He can pick 2 standard items (a flashlight and maps), roll 1d4 more (a 4! He gets sunburn preventive cream/foot powder, a camouflage helmet cover with mosquito net, a poncho and 2 frag grenades), and roll for one special item (a fragmentation vest!).
As miscellaneous details, Doug is attached to friends, he is courageous, and he was an electrician before the War. He has a secret he is not telling.

Character Sheet (front)
The character generation process and the power level are a strong suit of Into the Jungle – your guys are fragile enough to make expeditions risky, just simple enough to make to render their inevitable loss okay, yet just detailed enough to get invested in. The high randomness of the system drives home that these are essentially everymen who got drafted and shipped out after basic training, and like old-school D&D’s murderhobos, their survival hinges more on a combination of guile, opportunism and luck than any innate ability. Doug up there is certainly a random loser swept up first by world events, and then by Dungeons Fucking Dragons manifesting in the centre of the Nam jungle. However, like in Dungeons Fucking Dragons, thinking laterally and exploiting your equipment can save your bacon, and characters do gain a good supply of random mundane gear to use in various mcgyveresque ways.

Nevertheless, and even taking into account a fairly generous dying mechanic, this is a swingy, low-powered, high-risk game. Like ItO, there are no attack rolls, only damage, reduced by an armour score that tends to be zero for PCs, and up to 3 for monsters (a rifle does 1d8 points of damage). Consequently, going into battle without an advantage is always a coin toss in Into the Jungle, and fighting dirty reigns supreme. A slot-based encumbrance system is in effect (you can carry as many extra items beyond the basics as your Strength score). You also accumulate “stress point” for basically everything (including mosquitoes, leeches, heavy rain and walking in the thick jungle where you might get ambushed), and characters who get 4 SPs start experiencing Traumatic Stress Disorder, which gives a 5e-style “disadvantage” on your rolls (roll twice, take worse result). Stress can be eliminated via rest, socialising, your friendly drugsssssss, and rolling while under the effects of disadvantage (which also burns away stress points).

Into the Jungle’s character generation is great, and it has one of the better lightweight modern-era systems I have seen. In that respect, it is fairly close to Into the Odd’s simple but robust original rules (as a caveat, the upcoming revised system seems to be taking a slightly different approach). The “GM section”, the background information for running adventures, is less well realised. It still shines where it employs random generation. There are great tables here for generating fast missions, including a hilarious codename table – e.g. “Operation Tunnel Ninja” may be a reconnaissance mission in some tunnels, to eradicate a vampire spawn pit in the Mekong Delta, ending with a party; “Operation Bay of Eagles” would be to infiltrate a crash site as a search-and-destroy operation against two giant spiders in Phuoc Tuy province, ending with 5 days R&R in Hong Kong. It also has guidelines for random encounters and locations (“a small waterfall with a blue lake and submerged ruins”, “someone is having a BBQ”, “rice paddies with mortar craters”, “mountain plateaus”), and a good selection of wildlife, monsters and rival NPCs (from “Lesser false vampire bats” to “Pigmen”, “Dungeon toads” and “Dryads”, and from Spetnatz teams to Viet Cong commandos). This is a superb kaleidoscope of “Vietnam Movie” imagery and fantasy stuff to combine and extrapolate from.

Guns and Guns and More Guns
And this is where it stops and runs out of steam. A well-realised GM section, complete with support material for running Vietnam-style dungeons and perhaps other types of adventures are missing; as are useful exploration procedures. This may be quibbling about a mini-game, but what makes a game more than a ruleset is the surrounding galaxy of information – the stuff which helps the players get their characters’ bearings in the milieu, and the GM’s guidelines for creating and managing the same. This is what makes a game like traditional D&D (in its various incarnations) great, the stripped-down ultralight systems so dissatisfying, Into the Odd pretty cool, and Into the Jungle an “almost there” game. It separates the wheat from the chaff. This is a game that needed a great intro adventure (this is of course hard – even ItO slipped on this particular banana peel), maybe a condensed Keep on Hill 330. It would also have benefited from a more in-depth treatment of GMing, including specific procedures for organising play in the scope of an adventure or a mini-campaign. But that kind of information is not there, and the game feels unfinished. Unfortunately, the two minuscule and frankly underwhelming supplements released so far aren’t helping. I mean, Dinosaurs in the Jungle. Sure. But it doesn’t fill out the gaps which should have been filled out.

In conclusion, this is midway between a well-developed thought experiment and a potentially great full RPG – it has a strong premise, and parts of it are nicely rounded out and admirably well presented. It almost manages to embed its rules in support material which make the game worth playing in a sustained manner. Yet it also has gaps which deserve to be filled in, and in the end, it does not feel like a game that fully grasps its own potential. It would need further elaboration for that. This does not mean additional mechanical detail – those parts, in fact, are just about right – rather, a developed and complex vision of a game that has gone through a rigorous testing phase, and which presents a rich framework to build on. Perhaps one day.

The publication includes a special thanks section to people who may be playtesters. It is, also, completely free!

Rating: *** / *****

Monday, 10 June 2019

[REVIEW] The Forgotten Grottoes of the Sea Lords

Tombs Forgotten Grottoes
of the Sea Kings Lords

The Forgotten Grottoes of the Sea Lords (2019)
by Keith Sloan
Published by Expeditious Retreat Press
6th to 8th level

It all began in 2006 with Advanced Adventures and Pod-Caverns of the Sinister Shroom, at least if we define our beginning as “the first commercial module to exploit the Open Gaming License to publish an adventure for a classic D&D edition” (these things are fuzzy because Cairn of the Skeleton King was published around the same time, and solved the license problem by simply sidestepping it). Yet Pod-Caverns was not just the first one through the door, but also a solid demonstration of the old-school aesthetic and adventure design principles. The Advanced Adventures line has had its ups and downs in the 13 years since, and it has faded from the public eye a bit – at least I don’t see it mentioned with the same kind of excitement as the newest Kickstarter money sink. This is a mistake. There is still very good stuff there.

The Forgotten Grottoes of the Sea Lords (any relation to Tomb of the Sea Kings?) has a lot of the same timeless qualities which were found in Pod-Caverns. It fills a niche perfectly, and even helps define it. There are many tombs of this and tower of that, but Forgotten Grottoes is the natural choice if you would like to run an adventure in a series of sea caves (U2 and U3 are close, but a lot more specific). Like Pod-Caverns ran with D&D’s bizarre ooze and fungus monsters, this module mashes together all your favourite sea legends from pirates and sea monsters to fishy cults and buried treasures, and puts them in a big, open-ended dungeon. It is not stuck on a single note, but integrates a lot of them into a place that feels both cohesive and varied.

The Forgotten Grottoes are a large place, beyond the scope of a single expedition. 112 keyed areas are described over two dungeon levels, all in some 13 pages (the rest are supplementary material). Yet nowhere does it feel bare-bones or lacking in some aspect: the adventure has both complex set-piece encounters and small, hidden mysteries; bargaining and combat; puzzles and environmental hazards. Even lesser side-areas receive their due, or offer some odd opportunity for discovery and interaction. There are all kinds of small, clever touches that are hella atmospheric and make for neat mini-puzzles. The dungeon denizens have hung up a few dead seals near one of the entrances, which you can toss into the water to distract a hungry monster. Observing a pattern of repeating bas-reliefs lets you spot the odd outlier, and find a long-forgotten hidden room. Strange and powerful dungeon denizens like a weird bird-sage, a vampiress or a lich can become temporary allies, patrons or dupes (if the players play their cards well).

The number of things to mess with – not to mention the number of ways you can mess with these things – is staggering for a lean booklet. With six ways in and many more routes and level connections to get around, not to mention the strong inter-NPC dynamics, there will always remain an element of the unknown. In the finest traditions of old-school dungeon design, this is a place to explore and plunder, or a fine location to locate your favourite MacGuffin, but its scale and complexity prevent it from being fully explored and solved. You can’t go in and “clean it” – it is a place you organise expeditions into, then get out of before things get too hot. And that’s how it should be: there is always a corner of this dungeon that will make the players wonder – what did we miss there? Fabulous treasures or horrible death?

The balance of old and new material is right. There are well-known (or vaguely familiar) AD&D mainstays, but like the better TSR modules, there is sufficient novelty in terms of new monsters (including some truly horrid crustaceans) and non-standard magic items to keep the players off balance and guessing. Creative thinking will go far here, but there are just as many satisfying opportunities for good, honest hack-and-slash. It is a generous module that rewards the shrewd and the adventurous alike.

The Forgotten Grottoes of the Sea Lords feels a lot like a lost TSR module in style and execution. It maintains a strong identity while remaining broadly usable – if you have seacoasts and pirates in your campaign, it will certainly have a place there. It is the precise kind of “generalist” module which fits most games without sacrificing its distinctive identity. Well worth owning.

Both playtesters and their characters are credited in this adventure.

Rating: **** / *****

Thursday, 9 May 2019

[REVIEW] The Hidden Tomb of Nephabti


The Hidden Tomb of Nephabti (2019)
by Jeremy Reaban
Self-published
Levels 5-7

Mummies. Why did it have to be mummies?
Should you want to explain the concept of a dungeon crawl to a layman, looting pyramids and Egyptian royal tombs might be your best bet to get across the idea. D&D is often highly esoteric, but pyramids? Those are on TV. The first game session I ever played took place in a pyramid. If you have played AD&D reasonably long, you have probably been to one, too.

The Hidden Tomb of Nephabti is a short tomb robbing-adventure. Of its 17 pages, 8 are dedicated to a dungeon with 23 keyed areas, the rest describing new monsters, gods, and magic items. It is meat-and-potatoes in a good way. If you need an Egyptian tomb, here is one that can fill that spot. It is written and laid out in a straightforward way, and focuses on what matters around the table. It is not going to win any award, or draw hype, but it is the stuff that makes for a nice home game, packaged for reuse.

The rooms are good. Every one of the dungeon rooms has something worthwhile going on: interesting combat setups, magical tricks, interesting and well-hidden treasure, and even good NPC interaction. It does not concern itself too much with mundane elements like rotting linen or sand with bits of broken pottery – it is all about the fantastic side of dungeoneering. A lot of adventures have two or three good ideas hidden in them. This one has several, and much of it is even tied to the local mythology (may contain traces of Cthulhu; time plays another important role). Most importantly, it is all material which invites and rewards PC engagement and experimentation. Look and touch!

One aspect I am finding weaker is the way the rooms are connected. The tomb is laid out in a fairly boring way which looks like the rooms are mostly linked arbitrarily. Nothing of note takes place in the corridors (not even traps or random encounters), and it lacks the vertical elements of a good tomb-crawl. The real pyramids had stairs and air shafts and interior galleries! One or two rooms are positioned in a way that requires some thought to deal with or bypass, but you could mostly just march unimpeded to the final room, and leave the way you came. Not even a lousy pit trap in your path? This needs work!

But all in all, this is a solid, unpretentious scenario with a fake-TSR style cover I have a soft spot for. As I understand from the text, this is the first module of a trilogy, to be followed by The Fearful Fane of Bubastis, and Black Pyramid of the Faceless Pharaoh.

No playtesters are credited in this publication.

Rating: *** / *****

Sunday, 21 April 2019

[REVIEW] Sision Tower

Sision Tower

[REVIEW] Sision Tower (2019)
by Graphite Prime
Published by Graphite Prime Studios
Levels 3-5

[NOTE TO MY PLAYERS: STAY AWAY FROM THIS REVIEW!]

Good adventures often follow well-trod paths, and add their own creativity to a tried form. The best invariably carry a personal stamp – they try something new even while benefiting from decades of good practice. These are creative risks which do not always pay off, but when they do, the results are fruitful beyond playing it safe. This is one such adventure. That is: many adventures are basically good (my usual 3 ratings); and some adventures excel at one or two aspects (these tend to receive the 4s). Sision Tower excels at all of them. It breaks new ground, and handles all aspects of a play-ready adventure expertly.

Sision Tower is a 40-page dungeon crawl featuring a massive, otherworldly tower that seems to be constructed of rock slabs in the shape of stacked ice floes. The tower, travelling through space and time, had appeared out of nowhere in a desolate region, and drawn multiple groups of adventurers to its location with a mournful song that could be heard hundreds of miles away. The player characters are neither the only, nor the first explorers in this strange place: they will have to contend with rivals operating within the dungeon, as well as coming across the remains of less fortunate predecessors.

Where lots of poor adventures get stuck on background detail, and fine adventures often discard them to begin in medias res, Sision Tower starts with a straight-to-the-point introduction which wastes no words, but provides flavourful and practical background details which come in handy when running the scenario. Rumours are followed by an overland travel segment, and a description of the “grounds” around the tower proper. It handles small stuff like travel times, gathering information, and finding extra supplies for the expedition in a succinct manner. Later, navigating the tower’s vertical rooms, illumination, random encounters and the rest are all given thought – the necessary stuff is there at your fingertips. The adventure is comfortable to use, an impression which continues through the rest of the module.

Polished, skilful presentation is a major strength of the text: there is always enough to communicate mood and play-relevant information, but it never becomes indulgent, or engage in hand-holding. The module calls attention to important ideas at the right places (including GM tips on getting the most out of specific encounters), and is admirably “readable” without straying from a basic two-column layout. It mainly uses small tricks like bolding, boxes (although not boxed text), bullet point lists and random tables to guide the reader, but never as gimmicks. These devices always serve a useful purpose in making the material handy during play. The module is peppered with the author’s diagrams and vignette illustrations; dark and moody graphite pieces which emphasise the tower’s gloomy atmosphere.

Atmosphere is an outstanding feature of Sision Tower. It has an iconic look and feel which should stay in one’s memory over the years: just like every player who has been there will remember the Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl or the Vault of the Drow, Sision Tower is a distinct place. Once a sanctuary of Law and a demesne of angels, it is now gloomy and abandoned. It is a vertical dungeon writ on a vast scale: pretty much a small mountain with a 550’ atrium in the middle, constructed of enormous, cyclopean stone blocks and its rooms connected by vertical shafts and sloping passages. The mournful sound of enormous chimes permeate the mostly empty structure.  Sadness and abandonment are moods which are hard to conjure in the context of an adventure game, and themes associated with angels are hard to use without reverting to cheap clichés. Sision Tower succeeds where others have stumbled: its angels are distant and inscrutable seraphic beings, but the tower’s tragedies are readily apparent. This is not a happy place, and it feels properly haunted – not a locale to linger for an extended timespan (indeed, the scenario’s moral conflict lies between trying to resolve the tower’s tragedy while risking death and failure, and looting it in a mercenary fashion before finding a way out).

Encounters along the Z-axis
But it is not just about mood. It works as a proper exploration-oriented adventure, too! The tower is a great dungeon with good flow, well-designed encounters and a sense of wonder in every nook and cranny. Navigating the out of scale verticality is perhaps the most unusual aspect, one that has a substantial effect on random encounters. The tower’s treasures are cleverly but not arbitrarily hidden, requiring thought to find and claim. The main prizes are sixteen special magic items, whose precise location is randomised among multiple treasure rooms. They are original and interesting, such as an amulet which turns you into a shadow, but carries the risk of staying as one; or a velvet mask which allows you to charm birds.

The fixed encounters are excellent set-pieces, allowing the players to take risks, experiment with their own solutions to open-ended problems, and win or lose big depending on their luck and resourcefulness. How to open a trapped chest which has already claimed someone’s life with a poison gas trap? How to explore a submerged passage inhabited by an intelligent giant jellyfish? Is the cursed medusa an asset or a deadly risk? Almost all of the 34 rooms have something to tamper with, with good clues and multiple possible solutions. This tends to bring out the best in players, while offering a different experience for every group. The main challenge, in particular, is deadly, dangerous, and plain damn scary. It requires player bravery to tackle, and the price of failure is not mere death, but eternal suffering. Sision Tower’s rooms are rounded out by random encounters, ranging from nightmare monsters adapted to this environment (sssspiderrrrsssssss) to adventuring parties and magical enigmas. More than simple adversaries, some can provide useful information and equipment; and some represent a non-standard challenge (the Choir Doves whisk away engulfed PCs to a different part of the tower, the Fool’s Ghost is a font of riddles, Lythia’s Purse-Cutters can become enemies or allies, depending on how the encounter with them proceeeds).

Altogether, Sision Tower is one of the finest adventure modules I have read in recent years. It shines bright in every aspect, combining vivid imagination, competent writing and inventive encounter design. It is not simply an interesting module to read (although it has much to learn from even that way), but one to play or run. As a “wandering” extraplanar location, it can be located in a desolate corner of your preferred campaign setting, and it should prove a session (or two) to remember.

No playtesters are credited in this publication.

Rating: ***** / *****


Even the obligatory "Weeping Angel Statue" encounter is great in this one!